Just as the global coronavirus pandemic is escalating profound injustices within the United States, it is also intensifying the brutality of the sanction regimes the United States imposes abroad. In Iran, one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis, a complex web of sanctions imposed by the Trump administration — and abetted by Congress members of both parties — is choking off critical medical supplies to a country desperately in need. While this dip in supply is not new, the scale of the harm is, as doctors frantically try to respond to a catastrophe that now includes 16,169 confirmed cases and 988 deaths in Iran — numbers that are rising by the day. Amid these dire circumstances, the Trump administration announced Tuesday it is imposing a fresh round of sanctions on the country.
On March 12 Iran’s Health Ministry reported dire shortages of key supplies, including syringe and infusion pumps. At the Independent (U.K.), reporter Negar Mortazavi notes that several companies were reluctant to sell testing kits to Iran over concerns about violating a complex web of sanctions, until the WHO stepped in and instructed them to. “A young father living in Tehran, whose cousin died at a local hospital at the beginning of the outbreak, told me he had all the signs and symptoms of coronavirus and his death report even cited ‘suspected coronavirus’ as the cause of death — but he was not tested for the virus as there is a shortage and test kits are saved for those patients who are still alive,” Mortazavi writes.
Relief International, one of the few humanitarian organizations that has been bringing medical supplies into Iran, issued a stark warning nearly three weeks ago: “There is an extreme shortage of these supplies in-country, where stock is often low due to the steep price of medicines and medical equipment — a consequence of U.S. sanctions.”
The doctors, nurses and pharmacists on the front lines of the crisis have been sounding the alarm about the dire circumstances for days. “Medical professionals in Iran are seeing the early signs of shortages,” warned Esfandyar Batmanghelidj and Abbas Kebriaeezadeh (the latter is a pharmacology professor at Tehran University of Medical Sciences) in a March 3 article. “They are calling the Iranian vendors of respiratory masks, surgical gowns, and ventilators only to hear that the goods are out of stock. They are struggling to get antiviral medication even to those patients exhibiting the most acute symptoms.”
For this story, I reached out to five medical professionals working in various cities and towns in Iran. I only heard back from one, who informed me that she was unable to conduct an interview because she had just been diagnosed with coronavirus.
Iran is not alone in facing medical supply scarcity: The United States itself is at risk of running out of ventilators. But in the case of Iran, U.S. sanctions are indisputably making the situation worse, exacerbating shortages that were severe before the coronavirus outbreak began. In October 2019, Human Rights Watch warned in a report that U.S. economic sanctions on Iran had spooked global banks and firms from transactions with the country, including those supposedly protected by “humanitarian exemption.”
“As a result, Iranians’ access to essential medicine and their right to health is being negatively impacted, and may well worsen if the situation remains unchanged, thereby threatening the health of millions of Iranians,” the report concluded.
People suffering serious and rare conditions were hardest hit by these pre-coronavirus shortages. In August of 2019, Foreign Policy published an article written by a professor of pharmacology at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences warning that sanctions are killing cancer patients. In November 2018, a team of Iranian pediatric oncologists warned in The Lancet, “Re-establishment of sanctions, scarcity of drugs due to the reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to deal with Iran, and a tremendous increase in oncology drug prices (due to the plummeting value of the Iranian rial by 50 – 70%), will inevitably lead to a decrease in survival of children with cancer.”
This large-scale human suffering is not incidental to the U.S. sanctions, but part of the strategy. On February 14, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked by CBS’ Roxana Saberi about the effects of the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran and reimposition of economic sanctions. He responded, “Things are much worse for the Iranian people, and we’re convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the régime.” The goal, in other words, is to collectively punish the population based on the unproven theory that this will make the people rise up against their government. When used in Iraq in the 1990s, this U.S. tactic caused staggering levels of death, malnourishment and poverty. Current U.S. sanctions on Venezuela — a country which has recently had a Coronavirus outbreak and will no doubt join Iran in having its crisis amplified by US sanctions — are estimated to have been responsible for 40,000 deaths in 2017 and 2018, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).
President Trump, who has surrounded himself with anti-Iran fanatics from the beginning of his then-long shot presidential campaign in 2015, reimposed broad U.S. sanctions in November 2018 after pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran. In the words of the Congressional Research Service, the effect has been to “to drive Iran’s economy into severe recession as major companies have exited the Iranian economy.” As oil exports have plummeted and the value of Iran’s currency nosedived, the Trump administration has only intensified sanctions, targeting the country’s Central Bank and placing further restrictions on oil trade.
While there is technically a humanitarian exemption, the lines are deliberately blurry to the point of nonexistent, and companies are spooked about doing business with the country even on these grounds. The aforementioned Human Rights Watch report points to chilling examples: “In the case of … specialized bandages needed for patients with epidermolysis bullosa, Human Rights Watch found evidence that a European company refused to sell the bandages as a result of sanctions despite the humanitarian exemption. In two other instances, Human Rights Watch reviewed correspondence from banks refusing to authorize humanitarian transactions with Iran after the imposition of sanctions.” Even now, as Eli Clifton reports, the hawkish group United Against Nuclear Iran — which has ties to the Trump administration — is pressuring major pharmaceutical companies to end their medical trade with Iran, even when they technically have the legal right to do so. And when the European Union announced in January 2019 that it was setting up an alternative payment system to enable it to carry out humanitarian transactions with Iran, Trump issued bellicose warnings that the EU had better not violate sanctions.
But it would be too easy to place the blame only at the feet of Trump. In the summer of 2017, Democrats in both the House and the Senate unanimously approved a bill bundling together sanctions against Iran, Russia and North Korea. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.), who caucuses with the Democrats, was the only “no” vote on that side of the aisle. That legislation gave the Trump administration discretion to impose a host of sanctions on Iran, and it was passed into law before Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal.
This was a clear threat to President Obama’s Iran deal, which Iran signed in order to receive sanctions relief, and it set the tone for Trump’s actions to come. “It came at a time when diplomacy was needed, and just dropping sanctions like that in a bipartisan way, that closed a huge door on the diplomatic side,” Cavan Kharrazian, international program researcher for the CEPR, tells In These Times. “It further legitimized sanctions as a tool of economic warfare, without any concern for their consequences.”
Democrats also paved the way for Trump’s actions. The 1976 International Emergency Powers Act (IEEPA), passed by a Democratic-controlled House and Senate, allows the president to declare a national emergency and impose sanctions without putting them to a congressional vote. President Jimmy Carter was the first to invoke the act against Iran, in response to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, and all six succeeding administrations — including Democratic presidencies — have done so. It is this framework that has created the present-day justification for the Trump administration’s devastating sanctions on Iran.
Despite the tremendous power this gives the U.S. president to strangle entire economies and medical systems, “Congress has never attempted to terminate a national emergency invoking IEEPA,” the Congressional Research Service noted in March of 2019. Until February of this year, that is, when Rep. Ilhan Omar (D‑Minn.) introduced a bill aimed at reestablishing Congressional oversight over sanctions. Its sole co-sponsor is Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D‑Mich.). Omar has stood out for loudly denouncing U.S. sanctions in Iran. “We need to suspend these sanctions before more lives are lost,” she wrote March 13 on Twitter. But this is largely an exception: Most Democrats are not willing to truly fight to end sanctions.
We need this to change. Right now, in the grips of an emergency, anyone who claims to care about human life and solidarity needs to fiercely fight to shut Iran sanctions down. These sanctions, by design and effect, inflict the most harm on people in Iran, especially those most vulnerable to the virus. But they also hurt the whole world. In a global pandemic, an outbreak anywhere affects people everywhere. Just as the coronavirus outbreak is holding a mirror up to the injustices within U.S. society, it is also exposing the savagery of U.S. militarism, which, in the name of “national security,” is making the whole world a more dangerous place. The United States needs to stop inflicting gratuitous suffering in a feeble and haphazard attempt to “punish the régime” of Iran using a strategy that fails by its own, already warped and violent standard of success.
This article was updated to reflect a round of sanctions announced by the Trump administration following publication.
Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.